Book Review

The Dragon's Gift

The Real Story of China in Africa


The Dragons Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa by Deborah Brautigam. Oxford University Press (New York: 2011), 416 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0199606290; ISBN-10: 0199606293; paper $21.95.

Reviewed by Samuel Chiang

Chinas performances on the global stage continually invite scrutiny as to her intentions, actions and spillover effects. In a country where might is right, inevitable questions will leap to the forefront as to her action in aid: Is it with strings attached? Who does it really benefit? Is this a foreign policy? Do they assist with capacity building? Is there partiality in aid support that might appear to support rogue regimes? Is China using aid primarily to gain access to natural resources? Does China make corruption worse?

Deborah Brautigam has masterfully written a book that seeks to bring a quartet of disciplines into perspective: history, macro and microeconomics, aid models and attitudes are combined with Chinas transformative aid policy going global along with its mammoth corporations. She frames the disciplines through officially promulgated policies that include: Eight Principles for Chinas Aid to Foreign Countries, Four Principles of Economic and Technological Cooperation and Five Measures for Assisting Other Developing Countries. She brings the practice of aid alive through the lenses of Chinas Overseas Economic and Trade Cooperation Zones, and, of course, through Chinas large corporations.

In the first three chapters she describes the historical context of aid from the West with ample details so that one understands the slowly revolving practices of aid. Missionary ventures and the subsequent formation of large funding bodies were clearly noted so that the reader can understand the mindset of aid and aid agencies. She skillfully weaves Chinas own humble beginnings on aid, the first developing country to provide such a program in the 20th century, so that the stream of consciousness about aid is not lost. Furthermore, she aptly describes the motivation for China to participate in aid programs and documents well Chinas framing principle from 1964, which serves as the foundation of Chinas approach on aid to foreign countries.

Nevertheless, just because one has a set of principles on aid does not mean one has an aid policy or practice. So, who served as Chinas mentor? Surprisingly, it was Japan. At the opening of the new economic era in 1978, Japan was ready to assist with both turnkey projects and technical expertise for capacity building to fuel Chinas modernizations. In return, Japan sought repayment in natural resources and commodities. While there is no love lost between the two neighbors, the practicality of the arrangement made it palatable. China saw the classroom and teachings on aid, liked what was taught and has sought to duplicate it.

At about the same time, the donor world and aid organizations were also changing their tune. They stopped funding infrastructure types of projects which meant that many of the African countries, needing this type of aid, had nowhere to go for funding. China then decided to put into practice what she had learned from her mentorJapanand a new era of developmental aid in Africa took place. The Chinese were intensely practical, experimental, not risk averse and able to bulk-up in their own institutional growth, which resulted in conducting aid with grants, bartering, and concessional loans.

Chapters four through seven provide a detailed look at how aid actually worked in both macro and microeconomic perspective. Ms. Brautigams prowess to interview in Chinese, live among the people (both in China and Africa), dig through reams of statistics and parse them is not lost on the reader. The maps, charts and graphs make this section a curious read at crawling speed. While the author shines on her mastery of showing how China does aid across Africa and how Chinas dragon head companies go global, the author often loses the plot on aid, and is mesmerized as to how companies actually work in concert with the state to achieve their purpose, which the author calls aid.

Storytelling case studies, dotting across Africa where Chinese dragon head corporations are operating, fill the pages for chapters eight, nine and ten. In essence, the author makes the argument that China has created her own path for aid, and it is one that she admires greatly.

However, what is instructive in these chapters is that aid is operating at the statecraft level, and Africa is choosing to consider different models of aid coming from European countries as well as from North America. Different models have different systems of accountability, spillover effects and potential aid values to be released. The author does not advocate which model might be the best, but the reader is certain that the practical Chinese method of aid is to be well regarded. She buttresses this argument by showing that some African countries are turning away from the traditional Western aid agencies and are turning towards China.

Interestingly, in these chapters one also comes to realize why there are so many Chinese in Africaover a million! There are three clear forces at work. First and foremost, there is the foreign policy angle. When the Chinese government encouraged corporations to go abroad, the smaller entrepreneurial enterprises also went abroad. They sought out opportunities. While this is not aid oriented (and the author did lose the plot), it became clear that there was money to be made. The second force at work is that the Chinese are committed to capacity building and transferring technical knowledge; as time went on, some people actually stayed. This clear commitment is well documented and admirable! Finally, there is also the angle of the recipient country at work. Pending on the country, some clearly were ready to work into the next phase and receive all the capacity building training; however, some were not, and the Chinese had to stay on.

Perhaps chapter eleven is the most sobering chapter. The author consistently delayed responding to hard questions throughout the book and made certain that the reader was not going to receive satisfaction until the last chapterafter she had laid out the case for the Chinese aid program, process and expansion. Then, she deals with some tougher questions that include the environment, human rights, corruption and unfairness. By now, she has lost almost all of her objectivity; she acknowledges the issues but is unable to respond well to each of the tough questions. Clearly, she has a high regard for China, the government and all the guanxi it has.

A contextual book like this cannot even be published without referring to the quotable guanxi found in China and across Africa. Hence, what is written is truly a contribution to knowledge. In addition, there are nuggets of gold in the more than 65 pages of Endnotes. The index is also a great help to the reader.

The continually disturbing feeling that this reviewer finds is the biased nature of this book. Thinly veiled, the prose leans toward the Chinese government, the foreign policy of aid, and the growth of the Chinese, global, behemoth corporations. In fact, on one page, the author quoted a government official who essentially did not look positively towards the entire continent of Africa.

The case of aid as defined by the author for China, addresses how state actors, corporations, and governments win, but it fails to address these questions: How does aid trickle down into society? How does aid change and transform? How are dependencies created by aid?

For international organizations and specialists who wish to know and understand how China and aid organizations from around the world work in Africa, this is a good reference book. For policy makers and grant makers who wish to know how their grants might produce certain values and transformation, or not, this book will cause a rethink.

Image Credit: China in Africa by futureatlas.com, on Flickr

Samuel Chiang

Rev. Samuel Chiang was born in Taiwan, grew up and worked in Canada and graduated from Dallas Seminary. He has started several businesses including a foreign joint venture with a local government in China and also served as the Chief Operating Officer of TWR, an international media organization. He has... View Full Bio